Running with the Devil 

"Coming Home" at the University of Memphis puts religious folk art in its place.

"Coming Home" at the University of Memphis puts religious folk art in its place.

Leslie Luebbers, director of the Art Museum at the University of Memphis, doesn't particularly care for the expression "self-taught artists," but for the moment it will have to do. Of the 122 pieces collected for AMUM's extraordinary exhibit "Coming Home: Self-taught Artists, the Bible and the American South," most were created by artists with little or no formal training. Still, Luebbers is convinced that terms such as "self-taught," and "folk art," are too limiting. At worst, the terms are built-in apologies. At best, they are gimmicks.

"I don't like the idea of calling any of this outsider art," Luebbers says of the work in "Coming Home." "Generally speaking, none of these artists are outsiders, not by any traditional definition of the word. They are people who participate -- sometimes participate very actively -- in communities of belief. Many are ministers. They may be disadvantaged in terms of education, but that's not the point. This isn't art brut. It isn't the art of the insane or art by the dysfunctional. It's work by mostly self-taught artists who are connected by a set of spiritual and social practices. We wanted to look at that phenomenon because we didn't think it had been done before. Or maybe it's been done before but never well."

"Coming Home," in both concept and execution, is a significant departure from and a reaction against typical folk-art exhibits where emphasis is placed not on the work but on quirky artist biographies.

"It's all been 'this artist was born and died on the same mattress' and not about the art," Luebbers says. "It's all been blah-blah-blah poor, blah-blah-blah nutty people, blah-blah-blah. What's all this telling us about the art? Nothing."

In 1995, Luebbers wrote a scathing review of a folk-art catalog for Number:, a locally produced quarterly focusing on contemporary art in the South. She was appalled because the art was taking a backseat to circumstance. She soon started organizing smarter, art-forward exhibits of the American-primitive. The U of M exhibited the apocalyptic visions of Myrtice West. It produced a show called "Noah's Ark: Animals By Self-taught Artists." But those shows were just a warm-up for "Coming Home," which treats a school of art traditionally perceived as naive as seriously as any major artistic movement.

"Coming Home" is curated by Carol Crown, and on the front end it seems like a step outside the box for this U of M professor who specializes in medieval art. But when you consider the colorful, flatly rendered images of capering devils, trumpeting angels, and exalted saints who populate the paintings and decorate the cathedrals of the medieval period, Crown's choice seems more obvious.

"There are a lot of serious art historians who would say [to Carol], 'Why would you want to do [folk art]? There's no real content there. And the art's just not very good, besides,'" Luebbers says.

Contrary to the opinions of "serious art historians," Crown has assembled a provocative show divided into four sections: "Religious Life," "The Garden of Eden," "The New Adam," and "The New Heavens and Earth."

The first section, "Religious Life," presents the self-taught artist as both documentarian and critic. We're taken inside charismatic churches where God's children kick off their shoes and dance with the Holy Ghost while outside a storm rages. Jim Shore's Taking Up Serpents is a metal and found-object sculpture depicting a rather surprised fellow pulling rattlesnakes from a box to prove his faith. Herbert Singleton's The Biggest Baptist Is the Biggest Sinner, a carved and painted wood relief, shows a lascivious preacher offering a well-built parishioner a Bible and a pat on the tush. Throughout "Religious Life," God is presented as an invisible, inexhaustible source of joy, and Satan has an erect penis. In light of conventional wisdom concerning the prudishness of fundamentalist Christians, some of the work is both shocking and revelatory.

"The Garden of Eden" links American-primitive artwork with modern, academic, and medieval traditions. Flat colorful animals cavort in painted comic-book style narratives that call to mind artists such as Rousseau, Picasso, and on occasion even R. Crumb.

"It's become rather commonplace to say that Picasso had no trouble 'connecting with his inner child,''' Luebbers says in an attempt to provide some context for the work. "He painted from this very primitive place, and although he was trained, he had no trouble picking up dirt and working with it."

There is a tradition in Christian art to present Christ as the "The New Adam" come to reverse the course of original sin. While there are many fine pieces in this section, they are all subordinate to Jesse Aaron's Crucifixion. Aaron, the son of a former slave, combed the swamps around Gainesville, Florida, looking for twisted roots and branches for his sculptures. With little adornment to the found wood, Aaron's huge but bloodless Crucifixion is more horrifying than anything sprung from the mind of Mel Gibson.

In "The New Heavens and Earth," Bible prophesy is depicted as a taxonomy of mythical beasts and monsters. The Reverend Howard Finster presents comical but sinister visions of the Apocalypse viewed through a lens of current events. He also envisions heaven as a childlike land of puffy, happy clouds, with magnificent castles for everyone.

Hung against a backdrop of corrugated tin, "Coming Home" winks at kitsch but never gives into temptation. It's a serious look at religion as it has evolved in the rural South by artists who were definitely on the inside. n

Through November 13th


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